Friday, 21 November 2014

Musing on Metaurus

We're setting up to do another all day gaming session, so I'm hunting round for an AMW re-fight to put on. In the past I've relied heavily on Phil Sabin's "Lost Battles" as it usually contains all the data I need.

Having worked on Cannae quite a bit recently I felt it only fair to find a Roman win in the Second Punic Wars and do that. Metaurus seemed like an excellent choice. I've been fascinated by the battle ever since I was bought a "Great Land Battles" book whilst on holiday in the 1970s. It was the only battle in the book I hadn't heard about.

Cannae is a battle that has been analysed endlessly, its lessons apparently learned and carried down through the ages. Ultimately it was completely fruitless. It led nowhere. At the very best it allowed Hannibal to stay in the field. It did not bring down Rome. I'm reminded of Manchester's statement in the English Civil War ""If we beat the King ninety and nine times yet he is king still, and so will his posterity be after him; but if the King beat us once, we shall be all hanged, and our posterity be made slaves". You might as well read "King" as "Romans". If Hannibal loses once he's hanged.

You might therefore argue that Cannae is a massive irrelevance in the overall course of the war.

Unlike Metaurus.

Metaurus is a decisive battle. From this point on Hannibal has no chance of winning the campaign. No major reinforcements will join him. It may take another three or four years, but the Romans know that from this point on they're winning in Italy.

Alas the sources for Metaurus aren't great. We have a fragmentary account from Polybius and a few lines in Appian. The main detail comes from Livy, at which point generally you know you are in trouble. Livy does tend to make things up to suit his narrative.

Metaurus doesn't make it into "Lost Battles", although there is a scenario in "Strategos", giving army lists and a table layout. Unlike "Lost Battles" you don't have actual force numbers, nor do you have deployments. Looking at what Phil Sabin has put in "Strategos" I'm not entirely sure where he gets some of the stuff from, especially the battlefield layout. Rich Berg has also done a board game of the battle, and I don't get his terrain layout either. Both have a river or stream running across the front of the Roman position. I don't know if this is an example of history not repeating itself, but historians repeating one another.

The force numbers are all over the shop as well, with more Carthaginians dying than present at the battle according to the sources. The Wikipedia entry on the troop deployment discusses the "evidence" before concluding against the run of argument that: "Therefore, it is certain that Carthaginians were significantly outnumbered". Outnumbered I think is proven, but significantly less so. It is similarly all over the place about cavalry. It says the Carthaginians had c5,000, but that they lacked cavalry, of which the Romans had substantially more. Based on what we know of the Roman forces - 8 legions + 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry with Consul Nero - the Romans probably had less than 4,000. As the saying goes "Go figure".

The other issue with the battle is Consul Nero's ability to redeploy substantial numbers of infantry from the extreme right of the line to the extreme left whilst the battle was raging. May need a special rule there.

All in all it's still a battle I want to do, but I'm a little behind where I'd like to be at this stage of the planning. I'm in danger of falling back on "inherent military probability". Oh dear.

I also seem to be a little short in the required numbers of legionnaries.

Ho hum.


  1. Very interesting and useful summary and analysis of Metaurus. Looking forward to seeing how you translate your interpretation to the tabletop.

    1. Jomathan,

      I can get it on the table, but the most usual configuration gives me about an hour's game, which isn't really enough. I have some work to do this morning!